TONY HUFFMAN and JACKSON ADAMS Daily News
Effingham Daily News
---- — Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series taking a look at the proposed 1 percent school facility sales tax that will be on the March 18 primary ballot.
When it comes to the countywide school facility sales tax, Superintendent Mark Doan wants to deal in facts.
First, he believes there is a specific financial need facing the district associated with the upkeep of aging buildings. Second, if something isn't done, he believes taxpayers will eventually foot the bill from their property taxes. Third, the tax would allow students to consolidate into three buildings, which would provide for better education.
“Our staff does an amazing job handling things right now,” said Doan. “But if we got down to the three buildings, it would make it better for students and staff.”
Doan said downsizing the number of buildings would allow teachers and students to be better acquainted, noting students change buildings four to five times while attending Unit 40. But with declining state aid, Doan doesn't see a better way to make that happen that would not involve the property owners.
“Right now, the only way to meet the financial issues facing the district is to go back to property taxes,” he said.
The district, along with others in the county, is asking voters for a 1 percent sales tax increase in exchange for an abatement on property taxes. Doan asserts it is the most beneficial option considering the circumstances.
“From day one, I've been talking about the fact that we have building issues,” he said. “We have buildings that are older, and there are upcoming costs.”
School districts receive a review from architects every 10 years, called a Health Life Safety Survey. If issues are found with the heating and cooling systems, roofs, asbestos, etc., the district is obligated to have them fixed. Central Grade School recently had $4.17 million in renovation work associated with such a survey. Doan also pointed to $350,000 in roof damage to Effingham High School last year and water damage at Early Learning Center as examples of unexpected costs incurred by the district.
“Right now, we don't have the money to deal with more than one major issue a year,” he said. “We are reacting when something breaks instead of being proactive.”
Doan's proactive approach would be to consolidate to the Effingham High School and Central Grade School buildings and either renovate Effingham Junior High or build a third structure. He believes that revenue from the sales tax would lead to three well-maintained buildings, which would save the district financial hardship in the future.
The breakdown financially is as follows: taxpayers would see a 1 percent increase in sales taxes on items, such as gas and restaurant food. In return, county residents would receive a tax abatment. The amount abated is gauged on student enrollment and the amount of money a district owes on existing bonds. The projected abatements for area districts on a $150,000 home are: Altamont, $352.30; Dieterich, $279.44; Teutopolis, $230.50; Effingham, $179.58; Beecher City, $166.96.
The countywide sales tax is estimated to raise $5.2 million annually. Because more than half the students in Effingham County attend Unit 40, the district would receive $2.6 million of that amount. Half of the $2.6 million would be used for the next five years to offset property taxes being collected for the construction of Effingham High School. After 2019, Unit 40 plans to use the total amount it receives toward building consolidation.
“We wouldn't be pushing this if there wasn't a reduction in property taxes,” said Doan.
Doan notes an Effingham resident getting $179 abated from their property tax bill would have to spend $17,900 in retail purchases before the additional sales tax impacts their budget, adding 54 percent of the tax would be paid by travelers passing through.
“We are spending our reserves,” said Doan. “We can't wait until they are gone to come up with a plan.”
Doan doesn't agree the revenue from the tax should serve just the city, where many of the retail businesses are located.
“For people to say 'You spend your money in Effingham, it should stay in Effingham,' I just don't agree with that thinking,” he said. “What is good for Effingham is good for the county and vice versa.”
Rural Effingham resident Robert Morrissey wants people to look past their feelings about government and realize the benefits the tax could have on area schools.
“I know there is a lot of mistrust in government,” he said. “If this was from the state government, I wouldn't like it either, but I think the local people in government can be held accountable.”
Morrissey said dysfunction at the state level makes it necessary for local districts to take care of themselves.
“It isn't the schools' fault they aren't getting state aid,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves, 'What are we going to do about that?”
One school district that has already turned to property owners to help finance its operating expenses is now hoping to also get a school facility sales tax approved by voters March 18 to help with facility costs.
Stewardson-Strasburg Superintendent Michele Lindenmeyer said the district learned from last year's referendum experience.
"For us, once you get the facts out there, it has to speak for themselves. Leave it up to them to make the best possible decisions to their own personal beliefs and their financial situations. Our taxpayers really stepped up and demonstrated their commitment to the community," she said.
With a newly renovated school, the cash-strapped district plans to use the money to maintain it but also abate property taxes.
"Give back what we can, but we've still got to keep these four walls intact," said Lindenmeyer.
Lindenmeyer said a misconception is that once it's collected by the state of Illinois, the state will hold on to it.
"Really there's a very short turnover as to when the dollars are collected and when they're sent to the comptroller. People don't really have a whole lot of trust in the state but I explain it's going to follow the student. They've got 30 days to distribute. It will begin to flow on a pretty regular basis," she said.
Lindenmeyer said voters are interested in the tangible benefits the tax would produce. For the district, that would include security and energy efficiency.
"When you put a label on it as to what that dollar is going to mean, people are very receptive," she said.
Timeline If passed, the Dec. 2015 tax levy would be the first time abatement of existing bonds (using schools facility sales tax revenue.) Therefore, taxpayers would see a decrease in tax bills paid in spring 2016.